I am not a fan of homespun philosophy. Homespun “philosophy” is to philosophy what black velvet Elvis paintings are to “art.” Kitschy and entertaining, sure, but that’s about it. In the days before social media I would encounter homespun philosophy less frequently, in fact, almost exclusively at my sister-in-law’s house where at each visit she would guide me into the kitchen to share the wise or witty clipping magnetized to her refrigerator door.
Today we are bombarded with homespun philosophy… advice about how to be happy, how to handle your kids, right/left politics, the “Truth” about god. Maybe you write it yourself. In our social media age each of us, at any time, is a philosopher. Except no, we’re not. Most of us don’t have the necessary skills and believing we have actually does more harm than good.
Next time your faucet is leaking, try some homespun plumbery. Or your car won’t start – homespun mechanicary. Or you’re being audited, maybe some homespun accountary. True, many of us can handle a simple leaky faucet or dead car battery, just like most of us can handle the simpler questions of say ethics, for example (stealing the office printer is wrong but taking a couple of paperclips is okay). But we don’t – or at least shouldn’t – fake expertise on the bigger questions of life and death, politics and religion, you know, the big stuff.
Some questions are pretty damn big. Is there a God? Do we have free will? How should a nation be organized and run? All of us should engage in these questions. But how do we avoid sounding like the philosophical equivalent to the black velvet Elvis painting? My list of suggestions is below, but first let me be clear about a couple of things…
I am NOT saying that those who have training in the cogent arts are smarter than you. They are not morally superior; they are not in any way superior to you except in this one particular skill. Just as the plumber, the auto mechanic, and the accountant have superior skills in their areas of specialization, the philosopher is here to serve.
It’s also not to say the philosophers don’t make mistakes. Of course they do. Philosophers are certainly susceptible to error. It happens all the time. In fact, it’s really the whole point. Arguments are examined, analyzed, critiqued by other philosophers, and then in whole or in part, refuted, modified, or accepted. It’s what we all do when engaged in civil dialogue as we should. It’s no shame to admit than some are better at it than others.
It is also not to say you should not express your thoughts either on the big questions or on the issues of the day. But here’s some friendly, unsolicited advice for when you do:
- Don’t be categorical. If you are one-hundred percent sure of something, chances are your haven’t thought it through. The great American commentator Will Rogers, a homespun philosopher if there ever was one, was biting and direct in his commentary yet with an affable and humble persona.
- Ask questions. Difficult questions are far more valuable than easy answers. (Yes, even I have a few favorite aphorisms) If you really care about an issue and feel you don’t have the logician’s tools to tackle it – get the ball rolling with some thoughtful questions. You and your reader will both benefit.
- Express feelings. No one can dispute your feelings. Your feelings are valid. But please, express them AS feelings. Don’t turn them into misplaced premises in a badly constructed argument. And please don’t have the gall and ego to assume your feelings translate into universal truth. Even the brilliant Mark Twain had the humility to express his deepest philosophy in Huckleberry Finn’s uncertain feelings as he drifts with Jim down the Mississippi.
- Make an argument. It’s really not rocket science. If you’re going to have a go at logic western-philosophy-style, by all means have a go. Keep it simple to start: Begin with a premise that the listener can accept, follow with simple “if-then” arguments, and draw a conclusion that follows logically from your premise and arguments.
- Make art. Artists are under no obligation to knit together organized, cogent arguments. Great songwriters like Lennon and Dylan, great painters like Pollock and O’Keeffe, made profound statements unbound by the limitations of linear logic. But be careful. Just like we’re not all philosophers, we’re not all artists. A similar conundrum that I’ll tackle another day.
Charles Bursell is a writer, performer, host and commentator heard nationally on SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and The Pacifica Radio Network. He currently hosts the podcasts Stream of Consciousness Talk Radio Theatre and Conversations With Charles Bursell. Both shows, and more, can be found on several platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and Libsyn.com.